Monday, November 21, 2011

Setting the Stage for the War of 1812

by Frank Boles

On November 1 the William L. Clements Library’s curator of maps Brian Dunnigan spoke about Michigan on the eve of the War of 1812. In a wonderfully illustrated presentation he shared with his audience the physical characteristics and lifestyle of Michigan’s non-Native American residents. The few settlers who lived in Michigan were primarily found in three settlements: Detroit, “Frenchtown,” (today’s Monroe) and on Mackinac Island. Detroit was the oldest and largest of the settlements. As the territorial capitol it also had the largest concentration of English-speaking “American” residents.

Curiously, Detroit also had the newest buildings and the most unusual of street plans; the result of a devastating fire in 1805 that virtually destroyed the entire village. The resulting void allowed government officials to impose a new street plan that, unlike virtually every other settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, featured extraordinarily wide boulevards radiating from great circles. Dunnigan noted in a sly aside that although the plan looked wonderful on paper, after about twenty years of residents constantly complaining about oddly shaped lots and streets consuming vast amounts of space that could otherwise be put to good use, the plan was abandoned.

Frenchtown, located to the south of Detroit, retained the vernacular architecture and the largely French character that Detroit was beginning to lose. Indeed, one reason for the settlement was simply that some Francophones were not happy living in increasingly English-oriented Detroit.

Then as now Mackinac Island was a seasonal community. During the summer upwards of 2,000 individuals would come to the island, which was a center of the fur trading industry. But as winter approached the population rapidly dwindled and only a few hundred souls remained on the island. Among them was a small garrison of U.S. Army soldiers, serving in what was considered at the time one of the most remote and isolated outposts maintained by the military.

Dunnigan portrayed in images and words a world long lost and yet somehow strangely familiar. A remote country that nevertheless had a certain semblance of the home we know. It was a wonderful discussion of what was which hinted at what would emerge.

"Mitchell Map" image from Wikipedia (